Race Policy in France

Since the end of the Second World War, France has become an ethnically diverse country. Today, approximately five percent of the French population is non-European and non-white. This does not approach the number of non-white citizens in the United States (roughly 15-25%, depending on how Latinos are classified). Nevertheless, it amounts to at least three million people, and has forced the issues of ethnic diversity onto the French policy agenda. France has developed an approach to dealing with ethnic problems that stands in contrast to that of many advanced, industrialized countries. Unlike the United States, Britain, or even the Netherlands, France maintains a “color-blind” model of public policy. This means that it targets virtually no policies directly at racial or ethnic groups. Instead, it uses geographic or class criteria to address issues of social inequalities. It has, however, developed an extensive anti-racist policy repertoire since the early 1970s. Until recently, French policies focused primarily on issues of hate speech—going much further than their American counterparts-and relatively less on issues of discrimination in jobs, housing, and in provision of goods and services.

Long a country of immigration, France became a multi-ethnic society after World War Two, when millions of immigrants arrived on French soil to take up jobs in the boom years between the late 1940s and the early 1970s. In addition to large numbers of migrants from Southern Europe, non-white workers arrived from North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, and South-East Asia (all areas of French colonial holdings until the 1950s and 1960s), as well as from countries like Turkey and from French overseas departments. Traditionally viewed as temporary economic migrants, these individuals have increasingly been accepted as permanent residents in France. Many have taken up citizenship and brought over families or had children in France. This has led to the transformation of France into a multi-ethnic society, even though many continue to refer to non-whites in the country as “immigrants” regardless of where they were born.

Unlike many other West European countries, and very much unlike English-speaking immigrant societies such as the United States, Canada or Australia, France has intentionally avoided implementing “race-conscious” policies. There are no public policies in France that target benefits or confer recognition on groups defined as races. For many Frenchmen, the very term race sends a shiver running down their spines, since it tends to recall the atrocities of Nazi Germany and the complicity of France’s Vichy regime in deporting Jews to concentration camps. Race is such a taboo term that a 1978 law specifically banned the collection and computerized storage of race-based data without the express consent of the interviewees or a waiver by a state committee. France therefore collects no census or other data on the race (or ethnicity) of its citizens.
Political leaders are nonetheless aware that race and ethnicity matter. To counter problems of ethnic disadvantage, they have constructed policies aimed at geographical areas or at social classes that disproportionately contain large number of minorities. The Educational Priority Zones (ZEP) initiative, for example, funnels supplemental money to disadvantaged school districts, many of which contain elevated numbers of immigrant ethnic minorities and their children. However, politicians and policymakers have insisted that the goals of such policies are to better the lives of localities or of all people in need, and have avoided highlighting the racial and ethnic implications of their initiatives. So far, this has been relatively successful, in that there have been few outcries among whites against such policies, even though the far right National Front party (led by Jean-Marie Le Pen) has won many votes based on relatively widespread anti-immigrant sentiment.

French leaders have also dealt with the challenges of racial and ethnic pluralism through anti-racist laws and policies. The law of 1972 continues to form the foundation of France’s national institutions. I contains four principal elements. First, it bans hate speech, making racial defamation and provocation to racial hatred or violence punishable by criminal law. Second, it outlaws discrimination in employment and in provision of goods and services by public or private actors, also making these criminal offences. Third, it establishes provisions that allow the state to ban groups that seek to promote racism. Fourth, it institutionalized the legal role of non-governmental anti-racist associations as partners in fighting racism, permitting them to instigate and to take part in court cases of racism as “civil parties”—an official status that confers rights on associations-even when they have not been directly harmed.

In 1990, France extended its anti-racist institutions in three new ways through a major piece of legislation known as the Gayssot law, named for its sponsor in the National Assembly. France incorporated a ban on Holocaust denial into its hate speech provisions. It is now illegal in France to claim that the Holocaust did not take place. Second, the legislation permits judges—at their discretion—to impose an additional penalty on parties convicted of racist crimes, depriving them of some of their civil rights (notably the right to run for and to be elected to public office). Finally, the 1990 law institutionalized a high-profile discussion of racism by mandating an annual report on the topic, published by the National Commission on Human Rights (CNCDH). Although some of the steps taken were controversial at the time the legislation was passed—notably the ban on Holocaust denial and the power to deprive individuals of their civil rights—on the whole these institutions have been widely accepted in French political circles and by French society.

It is useful to contrast the French approach to fighting racism with those in the United States or in Britain. Relative to other countries, France has proven less interested in and adept at punishing discrimination in jobs, housing, and in provision of goods and services. Its has been criticized for relying on the criminal law to prosecute such offences, because the penal code requires a higher burden of proof than the civil code. Until recently, France’s anti-racist associations and the French state have been keener on fighting hate speech, as exemplified by the legislative ban on Holocaust denial, something that would seem extreme in Britain or North America. Conviction rates for discrimination are quite low (ranging in the single digits for most years since 1972 in a country of over sixty million inhabitants), and are surpassed by conviction rates for hate speech crimes. It must be noted, however, that prosecutions for Holocaust denial, employing the penalty of deprivation of civil rights, and banning racist groups are not often undertaken by French officials.

Just as the United States has increasingly turned its attention to hate speech and hate crimes over the past five years, so has France recently begun to pay more attention to issues of discrimination. Since the late 1990s, there has been a steady number of reports by anti-racist associations and other actors highlighting the level of racial or ethnic discrimination in housing projects, discotheques, and places of employment. The government recently addressed these concerns by establishing a racism hotline that residents could call if they experienced discrimination. The operators were overwhelmed with hundreds of thousands of complaints over the first few months, thousands of which they forwarded to new regional coordinating agencies that were designed to monitor and combat racial discrimination. Whether these recent institutional structures reflect sustained attention to issues of discrimination and whether they will translate into greater numbers of convictions remains to be seen.

In conclusion, France has maintained its official color-blind approach to race relations in spite of growing numbers of ethnic minorities on its territory and in contrast to other European countries facing similar demographic shifts. In part, this tendency can be explained by the Revolutionary and Republican traditions of treating all citizens equally before the law. In part, this can be accounted for by the memory of France’s Vichy history and by the fears among the mainstream political class of a revival of far-right politics as embodied by the National Front. There are, however, pressures for more race- or ethnicity-conscious institutions in France. With the weakening of the National Front as of the late 1990s, with the increasing attention to the effects of discrimination in society, and perhaps with the better understanding of other European countries’ more race-conscious approaches to fighting racism (within the context of the ever-closer European Union), France may eventually begin to move away from its strict color-blind model.

Erik Bleich is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Middlebury College.